The Last Taboo

I recently read a memoir, straightforwardly entitled “Dying,” by the Australian writer Cory Taylor, whom I’d heard interviewed on NPR not long before she indeed died. Its subject is her experience of her own dying – in her case, from melanoma-related brain cancer, though the disease is not the focus of the book. It’s a slender, pretty little volume with a nice floral cover, delivered to our home with Amazon’s usual alacrity. The title is printed in a discreet, not over-large font. Yet when I unboxed it, my dear wife reacted as though I’d plopped a volume of hard-core pornography on the kitchen counter: with a kind of horrified pity at my incomprehensible interest in something so profoundly unpleasant.

This is an old issue between us. I once spent several months working on an account of my mother’s death and my consequent need to address the question of how we think – or, more often, don’t think – about our own mortality. It seemed and seems an important topic for a well-educated person of advancing age to contemplate coherently as far in advance as possible. But in that case too, my wife was mostly appalled that I would allow such a subject to occupy any of my attention, let alone so much of it.

Mind you, my wife is a paragon of human virtue in almost every respect, and is of course in good company with the vast bulk of humanity in her aversion to thinking about death. Having lost her parents to two different forms of cancer, she’s experienced quite enough death in her own life to make further rumination on the subject seem superfluous at best, thank you very much.

But her visceral reaction to a pretty little book titled “Dying” made me think anew about the myriad ways in which even the most intelligent, compassionate, and otherwise thoughtful people avoid, suppress, and deny this universal fact of life. People who think that climate change deniers are the lowest form of Neanderthal on earth are themselves, like most of us, advanced practitioners of the art of denying the far less debatable fact of our own individual deaths. To talk or even read about death as a personal phenomenon is the last, deepest taboo. Why should this be?

To be clear, by “death” I don’t mean someone else’s death –the grudgingly imaginable death of a spouse or parent or child, or the dryly documented deaths of the unnamed victims of this or that natural disaster or plane crash or terrorist attack, or the storied deaths of heroes, attention to which is culturally abundant and may spring from grief or sympathy or respect or schadenfreude or voyeurism as each case may be — but rather our own stubbornly unimaginable, individual deaths, what the philosopher Mark Johnston calls “our ownmost death,” that hard kernel of personal eventuality that shouts at us that we are not, in fact, the center of the existence we’ve spent our entire lives experiencing, but a transient particle of it.

Why is talk of this kind of death taboo?  Why is a book about dying as embarrassing as pornography? There are several likely reasons, none of them entirely satisfactory.

We can’t do anything about it, so let’s ignore it. This might be called the weather theory of death-denial, and it has some superficial appeal, except that we do spend quite a bit of time talking with one another about the weather and any number of other things that we can’t do anything about, like the possibility of life in other galaxies, aging, or Donald Trump.  We’re deeply contemplative, collaborative, and imaginative creatures in the main, so why put this particular subject off-limits?

It’s scary and depressing.  Yes, of course. The end of life as we know it is a disturbing fact, even if you’re a rock-solid believer in an afterlife, and it’s terrifying if you believe, as I suspect many nominally religious people do, that we’re fundamentally biological beings whose life is finite and whose consciousness ends when the body dies. But the fact that it’s scary and depressing begs the question of whether there might be ways to make it less so, if only we were freed to talk about it. In this age of identity politics, when victimhood is a kind of virtue and compassion is deployed in ever more granular ways, we somehow manage to ignore our common identity and withhold compassion from our universal victimhood as mortal beings.

In my religion, it’s merely a transition to another, better plane of existence.  This is another way of saying that you think that death is insignificant, and indeed many major religions are founded on this premise.  Which is wonderful if this belief is real, but it suggests that believers would be going around bragging about their mortality, not avoiding any mention of it.

Though the authenticity of belief in an afterlife is doubtless a lot more rare than church attendance might imply, church is ironically one of the last places where discussions of mortality can be held comfortably, since the expression of anxiety about death is converted into a form of apostasy by the religious doctrine of a desirable afterlife. The choice the church presents is to be a heretic, or to shut up about it.

It’s just a glitch in the program that we can correct. Some supposed visionaries theorize that we’ll defeat death in the next century or so, that our consciousnesses will be digitized and uploaded into machines, made portable and immortal, or that we’ll re-engineer our bodies genetically so that the very code of aging is deleted like a typo. I personally think that the difficulties entailed in these prospects are far greater and less likely to be solved than the visionaries imagine, but in any event they’re not results that anyone currently living can look forward to, so we’re all stuck with the fact of our individual deaths.

It’s a long way off; I’ll think about it later. This is probably the most common form of death-denial. Most of us, at a secret, emotional level, believe that we will not die, or will not die until some point far and indeterminate enough in the future as to be, emotionally speaking, forever.

The effectiveness of this evasion is of course inversely proportional to one’s age. To a young person, death literally defies imagining, lying over a horizon so distant as to seem mythological.  But sometime in middle age we begin to recognize –in our bodily changes, in the deaths and observable declines of our contemporaries – that our personal lifetime is finite, and dwindling, and against that realization we begin to bargain and deflect and deny.  And even if those evasions succeed for a time, the death of one’s own parents finally removes the psychological shield between us and personal mortality.

Dying is the one fate we all share, and that’s why Cory Taylor’s little book about her own dying is so valuable, but it shouldn’t be as brave and rare as it is. It shouldn’t seem scandalous or deranged for each of us to spend some time meditating on the nature and implications of our ownmost death, and talking with each other about it.

We spend an exorbitant amount of time and money in attempting to control where and how our money and other assets will be deployed after our deaths. An entire subset of the legal profession is dedicated to this pursuit.  Why not dispense with this last taboo and spend an equivalent amount of time and energy on putting our emotional and relational houses in order in frank acknowledgement of our own mortality?

One thought on “The Last Taboo

  1. You know, if we can fully embrace it, death frees us from fear. Once we embrace the inevitability of death, does anything else (beyond the death and extreme ill-health of our loved ones) really scare us? Even pain has an end through death.

    I think about our pioneer forebears who overcame such tribulations and who every day embraced the very real possibility of death, yet continually put themselves in situations where the likelihood of death was high (cutting timber, trekking across uncharted territory, raging illness). Every moment could literally have been spent in some sort of contemplation of death, yet they were engaged in life, in perseverance, in hope. Maybe, in a perverse sort of way, the lack daily presence of death in our lives have made us more susceptible to depression and anxiety rather than less…

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